BWW Reviews: Colony Presents Soaring BREATH AND IMAGINATION

Breath and Imagination/A Play with Music/by Daniel Beaty/directed by Saundra McClain/Colony Theatre, Burbank/through October 13

Just as opera singer Caruso valued music as the highest form of art, playwright Daniel Beaty creates his Breath and Imagination as a perfect theatrical gem, overflowing with simplicity and wisdom. Now onstage at the Colony Theatre, in its West Coast premiere, Breath and Imagination soars with a brilliant cast and smooth direction from Saundra McClain through October 13.

Roland Hayes, a lyric tenor, the first Black singer to perform with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, became the highest paid concert singer in the world back in the 40s, but to most of us, the name does not ring a bell. Paul Robeson, yes, but Roland Hayes, definitely, no. He was a black man who refused to compromise, but Robeson gained much more recognition for advocating anti-Imperialism and was accused of socialist activities during the McCarthy era. With this play, Hayes gains an eternal recognition, so some justice has been served. Descended from slaves, and burdened with poverty, Hayes was doomed to failure from the start due purely to the color of his skin. This is a complicated soul with a myriad of problems besetting his destiny, yet Beaty somehow manages to weave a story about him that is as cleanly balanced and emotionally evocative as a thrilling musical composition. Spirituals and other classical pieces are sung throughout the 90-minute play, and the action flows seamlessly from scene to song to scene with a melodic rhythm that never lets up.

Three actors onstage, one at the piano (Kevin Ashworth) accompanying and playing seven brief but key roles in Hayes' life, an actress as Angel Mo', Hayes' mother (Karan Kendrick) and Hayes himself (Elijah Rock) speak and sing Hayes from age 11 through various phases of his complex career to his concert appearance in Georgia that was a benefit for the purpose of opening an integrated school for students of music. In fact, the play opens with this concert, flashes back to Hayes' boyhood and then jumps back to the concert at the end.When the concert begins, Hayes shocks those in attendance by stating quite emphatically that the school will not open. He has changed his mind. His wife and daughter were just arrested simply for sitting and attempting to purchase shoes in what they did not realize was the white section only of the shoe department of a prominent department store. But by play's end - after all the details of his career and personal struggles have been reviewed - he reverses his decision to the original one, that the school must open and open now, at some point in the 1940s. His mother had most likely been the prime motivator, as she coerced him onward and upward to fulfill his life's dream and destiny. To quote the play, it's "the pain and the promise". He never quit.

Guided by McClain's fluid staging, Rock is nothing short of glorious, possessing a rich vocal instrument and strong stalwart demeanor that could very well have been that of Hayes or any other black man who had to constantly fight an impossible battle. He brings plenty of spirit to the fore. Kendrick is a rock as Angel Mo', domineering to the core, yet caring and supportive, never giving up on her son. She also sings beautifully. Ashworth is a wonder quickly and deftly becoming several different people within seconds with merely a prop such as a helmut, skirt or cane, to assist the characterization.

Breath and Imagination are the words that Mr. Calhoun, Hayes' first vocal teacher, used to encourage his focus and stamina. With that magnificent breath and vivid imagining Hayes was able to conquer the mastery of singing in several languages, a feat for any legit singer. The play and this production of it offer a little bit of magic, which is what the theatre is all about. Bravo once more to the Colony and its insistence on presenting great quality theatre.

For more information, visit colonytheatre.org.


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